Central America Dismantles Democracy

Central America Dismantles Democracy

In Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, authoritarian and corrupt politicians have found fertile ground.

President Nayib Bukele speaks at a press conference on May 31, 2020, in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Camilo Freedman/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images)

On February 9, just weeks before the coronavirus hit El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele forced his way into the Legislative Assembly surrounded by armed soldiers. He had spent the previous days warning lawmakers that he had constitutional grounds to dissolve the legislative body if it didn’t approve a security loan he was asking for, paving the way for an attempted coup. He believed his approval rating (at that point over 90 percent) gave him enough leverage to get away with it. Bukele sat in the seat reserved for the chairperson of the assembly, hit a gong to open the almost empty legislative session he had summoned, and prayed. Then he suddenly left the hall and told hundreds of followers waiting outside that God had asked him to be patient. He gave lawmakers one more week to approve the loan (as of this writing, they have yet to vote on the proposal). The coup was averted.

The scene seemed preposterously outdated. But it was a sign of the times. In El Salvador, as in most of Central America, democracy is being dismantled. And very few people outside the region are watching.

To much of the world, Central America is synonymous with gang violence and migrants trying to reach the United States. Images of our children caged in Texan facilities or drowned in the Rio Grande illustrate front pages. Our youth are portrayed as tattooed criminals from shithole countries.

In the 1980s, Central America made headlines around the world for very different reasons. It was a Cold War battleground. In the years when the Sandinistas first ruled Nicaragua, commander Daniel Ortega represented the hopes of millions of Central Americans for more equal societies. The Reagan administration saw the country as a threat to its geopolitical game, and Washington gave billions of dollars in military aid to El Salvador to support an army accused of massive human rights violations in its long fight against Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) Marxist guerillas. Like hundreds of thousands of other Salvadorans, my family went into exile in the early 1980s. I grew up in Mexico City, watching my country’s events every day on the news from a safe distance.

When the Berlin Wall came down, geostrategic interest in Central America disappeared. The Sandinistas peacefully surrendered power to Violeta Chamorro, a liberal who won presidential elections in 1990. El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992 with the signing of UN-brokered peace agreements, becoming an international poster child for conflict resolution.

I moved back to San Salvador, the country’s capital, in 1997, long after the foreign correspondents had left the region. The country was in the process of building new democratic institutions, establishing free and fair elections, and opening human rights offices. The armed forces were cut off from political life, and politicians decla...